Ask the experts: Sizing up Pacific Division ahead of 2016-17 season

Ask the experts: Sizing up Pacific Division ahead of 2016-17 season

For the final six weeks of last season, it was a foregone conclusion that the three California teams in the Pacific Division were sure to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Anaheim took first, Los Angeles second and the Sharks third, while the remaining four teams were well behind and essentially buried by the end of February.

The Sharks should be in a prime position to challenge for the division title, and may even be the frontrunners. Their main competition is still the Kings, who have significant depth issues that were exposed by San Jose in the first round last season and didn’t do anything to improve in the offseason while losing Milan Lucic; and Anaheim, which replaced coach Bruce Boudreau with Randy Carlyle, and is going with John Gibson as its starter in net.

NBC NHL analyst Brian Boucher is “not thrilled about L.A.,” but thinks the Ducks are primed to challenge for their fifth straight division title if Gibson can step up.

“Are [the Kings] fast enough? I don’t know. They look slow,” Boucher said. “Losing a guy like Lucic I think will benefit them in the long run, but they didn’t really replace him with much of anything. I think the Sharks are a better team than the Kings right now. 

“The Ducks I feel can be the best of all those California teams just because of their defense, but I have questions about their goaltending. I don’t know if John Gibson is as good as everybody makes him out to be. Now the pressure is on him to be the guy, and we’ll see if he can carry the load.”

While the Sharks probably have fewer question marks than their two California rivals, they’re going to have to figure that at least one or two of the other Pacific teams will be greatly improved. Edmonton, with Connor McDavid and a few new faces, should be better than last season. Calgary features a solid blue line and some young talent up front with guys like Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and addressed their goaltending problem with Brian Elliott, formerly of St. Louis.

Even the Coyotes could be tougher if last year’s rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, in particular, continue to improve. Only the Canucks look hopeless.

NBC’s Keith Jones expects the division to be tighter.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see Calgary get their game back to where it was a couple seasons ago,” Jones said. “I think Calgary is a bit of a threat. I like their blue line and now they’ve got a goaltender in Elliott. They’ll be difficult.

“I think Edmonton still isn’t there as far as the back end goes, but they’ve got one of the rising superstars in the game. I think we’re all going to be shocked at just how great [McDavid] is by the end of this season – I’m talking one of the best two or three players in the game.”

Former NHL goalie and an analyst for the NHL Network, TSN and RDS, Martin Biron also sees some of the lesser teams from last season rising.

“The California teams are competitive and are going to remain competitive, but there are other teams that are going to start stealing points away from the top teams,” Biron said. “Vancouver is possibly the only one in that division that might be at the bottom.”

The Sharks are in the driver’s seat, according to Jones.

“I worry about some of the other teams like L.A. and Anaheim taking a step back, which I think will benefit San Jose,” Jones said. “I don’t think that they are as strong as they were in previous seasons. I think there’s a major window of opportunity for San Jose to build off of what they did last year.”

Sharks not satisfied with single point, believe skid will strengthen them

Sharks not satisfied with single point, believe skid will strengthen them

Well, the Sharks certainly made it interesting. Every time the Ducks scored a goal on Friday evening, the Sharks came back and were able to tie things up. They even got the game-tying goal late in the third period that took their contest into overtime – at least, before they lost 4-3.

Perhaps at a different time of year, getting their first point in five games would feel better. Not on this night. 

The focus remains on the work to be done with just seven games left in the regular season. For Team Teal, they need to clean their game up and get back into the win column.

“It’s better than nothing, but overall, we’re just not finding ways to win games now,” Timo Meier told the media in Anaheim regarding the single point. “We’ve got to find a way to win games. It’s an important time of the year. Playoffs are really close.”

San Jose put a better effort on the ice on Friday than they did the previous evening in LA against the Kings, but the opportunistic Ducks were able to bury more of their chances,

"I don’t think we gave them very much," Peter DeBoer said. "Every chance they got, they stuck in the net, though."

DeBoer was more critical of the team a second night in a row, and rightfully so. Despite outshooting the opposition, the Sharks weren’t able to find the back of the net enough times. They allowed two goals while playing on the penalty kill and tallied 14 giveaways. Plus, outside of Meier’s power-play marker, San Jose still went one-for-five on the man advantage. Despite tying the score up three times, the Sharks couldn’t keep the Ducks from responding.

Clearly, all areas of the game need to be tweaked.

“We’ve got to find a way to get an extra save, and on (the other) end we’ve got to find a way to get another goal,” DeBoer said. “We could’ve used a power-play goal tonight -- another one.”

Perhaps the only silver lining, as Meier put it, is that the Sharks are going through this stretch now instead of once they get into the playoffs. San Jose is still trying to get some of its key players healthy and into the lineup so they can make a deep playoff run with the lines and pairs they want. The goal, at least at the moment, is to make sure this five-game skid is a lesson to learn from and not a prelude to the future.

"Get stronger as a team, get tighter as a group, and learn," Meier said. "It’s going to make us stronger going into the playoffs because there are going to be lots of ups and downs coming up. It’s going to make us stronger and we’ve got to react the right way.”

Sharks takeaways: What we learned from overtime loss to Ducks

Sharks takeaways: What we learned from overtime loss to Ducks


All the Sharks needed was a win. Just one win on Friday evening against the Ducks. Two points to salvage the road trip, stop the losing streak, and get back to hunting for first place in the division.

Not surprisingly, Team Teal made things interesting with a game that stayed tied up heading down the stretch. Unfortunately for San Jose, the Ducks were the victors in overtime 4-3.

Here are three takeaways from Friday’s game:

How did the power play look?

In a few words: nonexistent until the third. San Jose had three opportunities on the man advantage through the first 40 minutes of play and couldn’t make anything happen. They even gave up a couple breaks the other way that Dell had to stop. Had the power play converted, the Sharks might’ve been up by two or three goals after two period of play.

Timo Meier came up big with the power-play goal in the third period to tie the score up 2-2. While they couldn’t capitalize on the power-play opportunity immediately followed, Meier’s marker will hopefully open up the flood gates for the power play.

Who else stepped up?

Sharks’ bench boss Peter DeBoer didn’t mince words after Thursday’s loss to the Kings, saying that the team needed someone to step up during this stretch with injured superstars and be a hero.

“You’ve got to get a great performance from somebody in a game like this and I don’t think we got that,” DeBoer said on Thursday.

In all honesty, the whole team looked better even with the loss. The fourth line had a couple very memorable shifts, cycling low and establishing pressure. Joe Thornton’s line was clicking, which was clear from Kevin Labanc’s goal.

Gustav Nyquist was a solo standout – despite not finding the back of the net, he played a heck of a game and had some incredible looks. Of course, you can’t talk about this game without talking about Justin Braun scoring the big game-tying goal in the third frame, which was his first marker since December 2.

How did Aaron Dell do?

In all fairness, Dell gave the Sharks a chance to win for the majority of the game. No. 30 has looked good in his last couple of outings – save his relief effort against the Golden Knights earlier in the week when he had little defense to help him out – and he made a couple great saves in Anaheim as well, especially when the Ducks had a couple short-handed breakaways.

Unfortunately for Dell, he gave up the two power-play goals in the third frame. While Braun was the hero and scored the tying goal late in the third to help take the game into overtime, Dell still couldn’t hold down the fort in overtime. It doesn’t matter if he’s the backup or not – at this time of the season, playing too loose late in games isn’t good.